At the recent Annual Parish Meeting for Felsham, the chairman of the Felsham & Gedding Parish Plan Steering Group presented her final report and formally closed the Group while acknowledging that many sub-committees spawned by the action plan were still functioning. She was the only spokesperson to get a resounding round of applause at the meeting and it was certainly well deserved. Subsequently it may seem a little churlish to voice some criticisms of the Parish Plan process and its conclusions. Nevertheless it is standard practice in social research to conclude a study with some sort of evaluation but I would like to stress that the informal analysis that follows is an independent and personal view.
1. The Questionnaire was too long and cumbersome
From the off, criticisms were voiced about the complexity of the some parts of the questionnaire that was sent to all parishioners in Felsham and Gedding. Some people found the introductory section, where recipients were asked for personal details, both unnecessary and intrusive. It was also unclear how the Steering Group were going to analyse and present their findings in a statistically satisfactory fashion. The final booklet, however, was not only very attractive to look at with it excellent graphics, it was a thoroughly good read. In the back of my mind though was the carping thought that could this have not been done more cheaply and easily if the exercise had been broken down into smaller chunks and with better use made of Web apps. such as "Survey Monkey".
2. The BIG SOCIETY and the distribution of the questionnaire
The introduction to the questionnaire stated that the exercise was a reflection of the Tory's policy of the 'big society'. What exactly this means is still open to debate but it appeared as an attempt to emphasize the voluntary over the paid contribution to society's well-being. Subsequently it seemed inappropriate that parishioners were invited to complete the questionnaire with a 'carrot' of money that they would be eligible for when their questionnaire number was entered into a raffle. I think the total amount available was £50. Offering an inducement to parishioners to complete a questionnaire has implications for the validity and reliability of the conclusions drawn. Could some people have just filled in their responses in a haphazard fashion just to be entered into the draw?
An interesting parallel can be drawn with the 'donating of blood'. In this country we have always depended on volunteers and we have some of the best quality blood around. In other countries, including the USA I think, payment for blood has led to a poorer quality of blood being supplied. People are not supplying blood through altruism or other intrinsic motivations but through necessity or other extrinsic motives, and this has led to people donating blood that has not been properly screened, perhaps from drug addicts etc.
3. The questions in the questionnaire did not provide enough alternative responses
To take one example: A village sign for Felsham. If my memory serves me right, the question was 'Do you want a Village Sign? Yes/No.' Many people answered Yes (including myself) and a committee is now progressing the action with a sizeable budget to help get things moving.
Now, what is the purpose of a Village Sign? Perhaps the main reason is that it can provide a focus for village identity. However, as many people have pointed out Felsham already has its village pumps as a reference point, so it is actually unclear what can be added. I have made some stab at finding some worthwhile historical references which could appear on a sign but they are not that obvious. [By the way, what has happened to the excellent pub sign for the Six Bells Inn?]
Perhaps the question should have been broader providing a range of different options relevant to the village. For example:
Place in order of preference
- Village sign
- Museum case of historical documents and artefacts
- Village information board
- Village trail of listed buildings and places of note
- Shelter for pump on Upper Green with seats
4. The Parish Plan as a mandate for the two villages
The report from the Steering Group was adopted and accepted by both the Gedding Meeting and the Felsham Parish Council, and over many months was the subject of numerous and lively discussions and the production of a comprehensive action plan. However, there appeared to be some assumption written into the report that it was a 'mandate' for the two elected bodies and this has given rise to some problems both legal and practical. A 'mandate' is 'an official order or commission to do something' but within the context of the parish council this cannot be the case. Parish Councillors are not elected on a mandate but to represent parishioners. For example, I was elected on a platform "to work for a greener, safer Felsham" which I have tried to do to the best of my ability. I did not stand for election to carry out the conclusions of a parish plan without question or criticism.
This issue came to the fore recently in a parish council meeting where lengthy and sometimes acrimonious discussion took place concerning the experimental grass-cutting regime on Lower Green. The Minutes of 24 March state:
... It was confirmed that there was no interest identified from the parish plan for a wildlife area on Lower Green or anywhere else in the parishes...
The implication of this statement was that as the Parish Plan did not sanction a wildlife area then there could not be one. This is clearly nonsense. The Parish Council does not require the permission of a report to sanction any action within the village. Councillors cannot be mandated.
Something similar happened in the Report's section on LOCAL DEMOCRACY. Some respondents complained that they did not know their local representatives. We are not told how many thought this but, even so, the action plan stipulated that personal profiles of parish councillors should be published on the website, in the Village News, and on the Noticeboard. Innocuous enough you may think, but in fact involved some invasion of privacy. Not everyone wants a Facebook page and neither does everyone want their personal details splashed all over the internet. However, despite my personal opposition, the Council agreed to publish the profiles and subsequently I was forced to resign my position as website administrator, a job I thoroughly enjoyed doing. I outlined my reason in a NALC blog:
It might seem to many people a trivial matter but I think there is an important privacy principle at stake here. The silly thing is that it is so unnecessary. We are a small village and if people want to know what we look like they can attend our monthly meetings plus the occasional “surgeries” that are held in the Village Hall.
My fellow councillors and Parish Clerk disagree and point out that our District and
are fully described on-line. But I feel that at a Parish level it is a different matter entirely and that councillors should be able to opt- out from having similar profiles published. If new candidates standing for the Parish Council knew in advance that their picture and personal profile were to appear on a website that is a different matter. They can then decide not to stand in the first place if they felt this was inappropriate for them. County Councillors
Try a Survey Monkey questionnaire here.